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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bluebirds come up short in region title game

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands Designated Hitter Kenny Ball (left) reached third ahead of the tag of Conner third baseman Jacob Owens (50). Highlands lost in the 9th Region championship, 3-0 Wednesday.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

FLORENCE – They made their second appearance in the 9th Region title game in two years Wednesday.

But unfortunately for the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team, two words have kept the Bluebirds (22-18) from bringing the elusive gold trophy back to Fort Thomas. That’s clutch hitting.

It cost them in a 3-0 loss to the Conner Cougars at University of Cincinnati Medical Center Stadium. Conner (25-9) scored three unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh to pull off the win. The Cougars won their first crown since 1979.

“That is a phenomenal team over there,” said Brad Arlinghaus, Conner Head Coach, of Highlands. “My heart goes out to them. They battled and deserved this as much as we did.”

The Bluebirds have been outscored by a combined 6-1 in those title games.

Newport Central Catholic beat them, 3-1 in the title game in 2012. The Bluebirds hoped to win their first region crown since consecutive titles in 1996 and 1997.

“Guys are playing their tails off,” said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. “We didn’t put a few hits together and made some base running mistakes. You simply can’t do that against good teams and win. It just wasn’t mean to be.”

Highlands managed six hits off Conner pitchers Blaise Ostertag and Nick Craddock. Jake Whitford led the way going 3-for-3 with a double.

“(Ostertag and Craddock) threw the ball well,” Baioni said. “I think we got a little undisciplined at the plate and started to chase some balls that were out of the strike zone. It’s the regional final and these guys were anxious and ready to go. I think that hurt us offensively.”

The Bluebirds had two wonderful chances to score. They put runners on second and third with two out in the third. Even Allen walked and moved to third when Whitford singled. Whitford moved to second on a Conner fielding error. But Ostertag got Todd Ramey to pop out.

The Bluebirds also put the first two runners on base in the seventh inning. Craddock hit D.J. Mills with a pitch and Luke Hennigan singled pinch-runner Austin Beal to third before pinch-runner Mitch Gesenhues stole second. But Craddock, a freshman, struck out Brandon Hergott and Alex Veneman before coaxing Brady Murray to pop out to end the game.

Sophomore Ricky Raisor pitched a great game for Highlands. The Cougars did not move anyone past second until the sixth inning. They only managed three hits off Raisor and relief pitcher Mitch Jones.

Jeffrey Schneider was hit by a pitch to open the sixth. Raisor retired Cameron Ross and Ostertag before Jared Williams walked. The Bluebirds brought in Jones at that point.

Blake Hart hit a ground ball to the right side that appeared to end the threat. But the ball skipped past Mills into right allowing Schneider to score. Ryan Wared then batted home Williams and pinch-runner Matthew Justice on a triple.

The Bluebirds graduate five seniors from the team. They are Allen, Joey Cochran, Ben Vermeil, Gesenhues and Hergott. Highlands won just six games their freshmen years.

“The seniors are one of the reasons we’ve come as far as we have,” Baioni said. “Those guys have worked their tails off since the eighth grade and wanted to see this thing through to a regional championship. We fell just short of that. They have nothing to be ashaimed of.”

Highlands will also be able to pull up players from successful freshmen and junior varsity squads. They both claimed the 9th Region Tournament crowns.

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